Academic journal article Change Over Time

HABS DOCUMENTATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE: Combining Traditional and New 3D Methods of Recording

Academic journal article Change Over Time

HABS DOCUMENTATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE: Combining Traditional and New 3D Methods of Recording

Article excerpt

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) of the National Park Service (NFS) was established in 1933 with a mandate to document for posterity America's architectural heritage through the production of measured drawings, historical reports, and largeformat, black and white photographs for inclusion in a centrally located, publicly accessible repository. Toward that end, HABS enjoys an unusual public-private partnership with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Library of Congress (LoC), who joined with the National Park Service in a tripartite agreement in 1934. Under the terms of this agreement, the LoC houses the collection under archival conditions and provides public accessibility free of copyright;1 the AIA provides support and advice through the lens of private -sector architectural practice; and NPS (through HABS) creates guidelines, field tests new technologies and techniques, and produces standard-setting documentation. The collection includes buildings of diverse typologies and styles and from every region of the country.2 Documentation currently exists on over forty thousand sites and structures across the nation, and the collection receives nearly fifty thousand visits per month from architects, preservationists, and scholars, as well as the general public, with K-12 students and educators forming the fastest growing user group. The HABS program fulfills an important role in the study and preservation of historic architecture by creating and providing public access to a database of information on a vast array of American building forms. By preserving our architectural heritage through documentation, the HABS collection also bestows a legacy to future generations.

When producing measured drawings, HABS has adopted the use of a laser scanner as a supplement to traditional hand measuring. Laser scanning is rapidly gaining momentum in the field of architectural documentation, but in our zeal to apply new technologies that we hope will improve upon or simplify our work, are we missing the larger picture? We may be too quickly overlooking the essential benefits of hands-on field measuring and investigation to our understanding and treatment of historic architecture. Likewise, by relying solely on laser scans rather than using them as data to produce measured drawings printed on archival materials, we may also be neglecting our obligation to ensure transfer of the information to future generations. Key to understanding this issue is defining what constitutes architectural "documentation" and its ultimate purpose. With the advent of new technologies, the traditional documentation methods such as hand-measured drawings, field notes, and photographs intended to provide a record of the architectural form and character of a site are sometimes overshadowed or conflated with tools for new building construction and management, or the conservation of building materials.3 It is vital that the purpose for recording is clear, including whether it is necessary to retain the information long term.4 It is equally essential to understand the function and limits of the recording tool. Once these questions and issues have been articulated, we can better identify the best tool(s) for each particular application. Laser scanning is one such tool that has significantly impacted heritage recording. It can provide extremely accurate and complex three-dimensional information about a heritage site; however, the process results in a certain level of detachment that could be detrimental during the essential first phase of field investigation. Furthermore, the types of data (point clouds), file formats, and dependence on proprietary computer software challenge current concerns of archival permanence, format migration, and sustainability over time.

It is due to these concerns that HABS - along with its companion programs, the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) - uses laser scans as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, hand measuring and careful field investigation, and as a tool in the production of measured drawings rather than as the primary record. …

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